Saturday, June 17, marks two years since nine people were shot and killed while worshiping inside Emanuel AME Church.
The stories from that night are numerous, but one man has a perspective unlike anyone else — former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.
It’s a night he'll never forget.
“When something like that happens, you remember ever facet of it,” Riley said on Thursday. “I remember the call. I remember realizing I needed to put on a suit and tie.”
After receiving a call shortly after 9 p.m., Riley raced down to Emanuel AME, which was now an active crime scene. He learned a gunman shot and killed nine people, many of them he knew personally.
Legislative session was in full swing and that night and Riley said he was confident Reverend and Senator Clementa Pinckney was in Columbia with other lawmakers. He wasn’t.
“Until that second I really didn't even imagine that Senator Pinckney was there and then I remembered they said ‘Mayor, Senator Pinckney was there.’"
Despite serving as mayor for 40 years. Riley faced his biggest challenge that night. He and Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen walked to a hotel down the block to break the tragic news to the victim’s family members. Riley said he remembers the sounds of utter sadness.
“(An) audible response, which was probably 200 people there then,” Riley said. “Family members and friends, just every way that a human being can express anguish, despair, heartbreak, and disbelief.”
He said they cried, hugged and prayed together. Then around midnight, he and other officials held a press conference with the latest developments. The suspect, at that time, was still at large.
“We made it clear that we understood what had occurred and that it was a hate crime,” Riley said. “That these prayerful, bible studying, church members had been killed because the killer was a racial bigot and he killed them because of the color of their skin. There would be no sweeping anything under the rug.”
Days later, the suspect and now convicted killer, Dylann Roof, faced a Charleston County judge. Inside the courtroom, family members delivered a stunning, tearful message to Roof.
“I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” said the daughter of one of the victims.
It sparked one of the Holy City’s greatest messages—love conquers hate. It also set the tone in the community, promoting peace, instead of retaliation.
“You know in many respects the tragedy of that night, the unspeakable act, was perhaps Charleston's worst moment,” Riley said. “And the family and the community's response to this may have been one of our city's finest moments.”